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In January 1949, a group of Black men, later dubbed the “Martinsville Seven,” were accused of raping a 32-year-old white woman in the small Virginia town. The men, ranging in age from 19 to 37, were never afforded the right to due process; they were instead promptly found guilty by all-white, all-male juries and placed on death row eight days after trial.
But now, 70 years after the men were executed for a crime the state never proved they committed, Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced he will pardon them.
“We all deserve a criminal justice system that is fair, equal, and gets it right—no matter who you are or what you look like,” Northam said in a statement released Tuesday. “I’m grateful to the advocates and families of the Martinsville Seven for their dedication and perseverance. While we can’t change the past, I hope today’s action brings them some small measure of peace.”
The posthumous pardons of Francis DeSales Grayson, 37; John Claybon Taylor, 21; Joe Henry Hampton, 19; Booker T. Millner, 19; James Luther Hairston, 20; Frank Hairston Jr., 19; and Howard Lee Hairston, 18, comes after months of advocacy from their descendants as well as members of the Martinsville community.
On January 8, 1949, 32-year-old Ruby Stroud Floyd reported that she’d been raped by 13 Black men while visiting the predominantly Black neighborhood of Martinsville, according to nonprofit Black history archive BlackPast.org. Police first arrested Frank Hairston and Millner, and later rounded up the other men. None of the men had prior criminal history. Grayson, the eldest of the group, was a World War II veteran, according to Black Past.
Floyd identified Grayson and Hampton as the men who’d raped her, but not the others. However, the five other men were interrogated and coerced into signing a confession, according to Northam’s office, despite not having a lawyer present or being able to read. They were all charged with rape by spring 1949.
At the time, there was a movement of people who believed the men were innocent. People and organizations like the NAACP wrote letters, held vigils, submitted editorials to local publications. Some even tried to convince President Harry Truman to intervene.
But by the start of 1951, it was too late. Four of the men were executed by the electric chair on Feb. 2. The remaining three met the same fate on Feb. 5.
“I was traumatized by this incident,” Curtis Millner, a younger cousin of Booker T. Millner said, according to the Washington Post. He was just nine years old at the time.
In total 15 descendants of the Martinsville Seven were in attendance for Tuesday’s announcement, according to the outlet.
Virginia was once a haven for capital punishment. Over the course of more than 400 years, the state executed 1,400 people, more people than any other state in the union’s history according to the Death Penalty Information Center. And for decades, particularly at the start of the 20th century, the death penalty disproportionately affected Black Virginians. In fact, all 73 people executed for rape, attempted rape, and robbery between 1900 and 1999 were Black.
In recent years, however, the state has undergone a political change. In February, it became the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. Northam has granted a record-breaking 604 pardons since taking office in 2018.